“Island Hopping in the California Channel Islands” Tour Recap

In May, I took a 3 day boat tour of the California Channel Islands through the Sierra Club. The boat, the “Truth,” left from the Santa Barbara harbor and visited four of the northern Channel Islands: Santa Cruz Island, Anacapa Island, Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island. This wasn’t my first trip to the islands; I had done camping trips to Catalina, Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands over the past 2 decades. But I had longed to go Santa Rosa Island and San Miguel Island as well, and this tour meant I could do both in a single trip.

An overall word about the Channel Islands: if you ever have the chance to visit them, TAKE IT. The Channel Islands are one of the most amazing destinations in California, a state filled with great tourist destinations. Although they have been mismanaged over the years and invaded by non-native species, overall the Channel Islands are like a slice of California Coast as it used to be—beautiful, rugged, spectacular. The long and choppy boat ride, the frequently marine weather conditions and the lack of developed infrastructure have kept the crowds away, and you might be daunted by those too. Overcome the resistance and GO.

Some photos from the trip: my gallery, gallery of Yen Lee (may be access-restricted) and another set.

Our itinerary for the tour:

4 am Sunday: depart from Santa Barbara Harbor. Because of the early start, the organizers strongly encouraged us to stay overnight on the boat (we could board starting 8 pm the night before).

[see my photos of Santa Cruz Island]

8 am Sunday: Normally the tour starts with San Miguel Island, but weather conditions prevented that. Instead, we headed to the Painted Cave at Santa Cruz Island. The Painted Cave is one of the largest sea caves in the world, going back 1200 feet deep into the island. The Truth anchored nearby and then ran small groups on skiffs into the caves. The water was too high to go in all the way, but it was a dramatic sight nonetheless. Along the way, we saw numerous sea lions, including a group feeding on a sunfish.

Midday Sunday: we stopped at Scorpion Harbor on Santa Cruz Island and checked out the wetlands restoration effort.

[see my photos of Anacapa Island]

Sunday afternoon: We transferred to Anacapa Island and had the afternoon to check it out. Read my Epinions review about my 2001 camping trip to Anacapa, which I still believe is the best way to visit the island despite the foghorn. Even if you can only go for the day, Inspiration Point remains one of the most amazing views anywhere in the world and deserves a place on your bucket list. For such a small island, Anacapa packs a lot of points of visual interest, including western gull nests, blooming iceplant (not native) and a few buildings with 1930s Spanish-style architecture.

Sunday evening: we boated around the south side of Anacapa Island and then anchored on the south side of Santa Cruz Island. I didn’t fully understand why we anchored on the south side of the island (i.e., exposed to the Pacific Ocean) rather than the more sheltered north side, but the payoff was amazing views of the islands’ south sides at sunset. In particular, both islands’ south sides are dramatic wave-eroded cliffs. Spectacular.

[see my photos of Santa Rosa Island]

Monday: we boated to Santa Rosa Island and skiffed to the pier. The group split into smaller subgroups. Four of us headed to Lobo Canyon, hiking about 2 miles through the Santa Rosa Island highlands to the Lobo Canyon trail entrance. I would rank the Lobo Canyon hike (at least in Spring) as one of the very best hikes in California, and you should consider adding this to your bucket list too. It’s carved by water and wind, exposing sheer cliffs of sedimentary layers and hoodoos. In Spring, the canyon is filled with water and flowers in bloom. The hike ends at a headlands overlooking the canyon mouth and the azure channel. We were blessed with a warm sunny day, making everything sparkle.

From Lobo Canyon, we hiked back through the ranch and along the shoreline to the Torrey Pines trail. The Torrey pines grow only in two places: San Diego and Santa Rosa Island. The trail is super-steep! The forest is in the most unexpected place; it’s unusual to see a pine forest silhouetted by the ocean.

The boat then picked us up from the Southeast Anchorage (requiring a skiff pickup from the beach), and we anchored on the south side of Santa Rosa Island (leading to another wonderful sunset boat ride), producing one of my all-time favorite sunrise photos.

The National Park Service is developing Santa Rosa Island into a more touristy destination. I hope they don’t botch that. Even though the NPS just fully took over the park in the last year, I was surprised that it was already in such good condition. I absolutely want to go back.

[see my photos of San Miguel Island]

Tuesday: We boated to Cuyler Harbor at San Miguel Island and skiffed to the beach covered with elephant seals just a few feet away. As usual, the island was shrouded in fog, giving it an intimate feel. Once again, the group split up. Our group first hiked up the steep canyon and through a giant coreopsis forest to the Cabrillo Monument (not much to see in the fog) and the campground (foggy and wild) and then out to Harris Point. The hike mostly went through treeless scrub. The lupine was in bloom throughout the island, creating a carpet of purple. However, the views were all fogged out, especially at the point, where the wind and fog blasted us. On the way back, the fog just started to thin out, creating patches of blue sky and magical sunlit views. Unfortunately, the boat left in the early afternoon, just as the fog was burning off, leaving me hungry to see the island through the full range of weather conditions. We took the boat back to the Santa Barbara Harbor (a four hour ride), saw some whales on the way (but didn’t stop to check them out) and arrived back around 6 pm.

I don’t really know how to put San Miguel Island into words. It has an indescribably magical quality that’s unlike any other place I’ve been. I am desperate to go back, camp there, and experience the island completely.

About the Sierra Club Tour: The islands are so special, it’s impossible to complain about the trip. However, if you’re thinking about doing the tour, some things to know:

* pre-trip planning. The pre-trip communication was not great. Despite many repeated requests, we didn’t get a complete pack list or reading list. We also didn’t get an itinerary, which makes sense because the trip does dynamically adjust to weather conditions. However, the trip organizers could put together a list of the possible stops (even if they aren’t in order) with some background about each stop.

* the boat.

– The boat isn’t big enough to smooth out the choppy waters, so there will be some bumpy rides. I used wristbands, herbal anti-nausea pills and ginger chews to combat seasickness, plus I spent a lot of time in the open air.

– The sleeping pods are tiny bunks (maybe 3 feet by 3 feet by 6 feet) stacked into one big communal area separated by cloth curtains. If you’re tired enough (or take melatonin, as I do), you can sleep through almost anything, but the sleeping arrangements are not private in the least.

– the boat lacks side thrusters, so it can’t just pull up to a pier. This means every stop requires skiff transfers even when there’s a pier, which can mean wet landings and, more importantly, take time (about a half-hour each way to get everyone on or off).

– on the plus side, we ate well. The food was plentiful and very good. The chefs took extra steps to prepare and label the vegan options, so we were well taken care of.

* the leadership. As the maxim goes, there can be only one captain of the ship. Oddly, for this tour, we had THREE captains, and that created plenty of unnecessary confusion. First, we had the boat captain, who had final say over safety. Second, we had the Sierra Club tour leader, who was in charge of the activities schedule (which might conflict with the captain’s safety assessment). Third, we had two naturalists on board, one of whom was very experienced and had her own view on both safety and activities. Watching the three of them battle each other for power might have been amusing if it wasn’t so annoying. Instead, it led to changes in announced plans (when one captain countermanded another captain’s instructions) and redundant disclosures as the captains felt the responsibility to explain their view of the plan to the crowd. If this were the first time the tour was run, I might have been willing to chalk this up to a kink that needed to be worked out; but given they have been running the tour for years and still have this issue, I’m assuming it’s not likely to be fixed any time soon.

A few other considerations if you’re thinking about the tour:

* kayaking along the coastline is a blast, but the opportunity to kayak is weather-dependent. It’s possible that you’ll have limited or no opportunities to paddle. Before investing in a kayak rental, consider the cost-benefit.

* the median age of participants was probably over 60. At 44, I was undoubtedly one of the youngest participants. The age demographics make sense; after all, who else has the time and money? However, it does create the possibility of generation gaps. At minimum, the demographics has some implications for average group hiking speed.

* the islands will create different experiences at different times of the year. Summer likely brings better weather, although the fog can be worse in summer before it burns. I can make the case that Spring is the best time to go. We were blessed with nice sunny afternoons (and sun in the morning in some places) and flowers were in bloom, which made everything picturesque. (Although we just missed the coreopsis blooms—THAT would have been amazing!)

While my thoughts are designed to make you a smarter consumer, I hope they won’t dissuade you. If you have any opportunity to visit the Channel Islands, CARPE DIEM! Now, who’s up for a camping trip to San Miguel Island?